As he veers left into the carpool lane on U.S. 60, Samson Szakacsy punches a couple more buttons into his Blackberry.
After nearly five months of preparation, the ASU junior quarterback wants to make sure everything goes right.
“So much stuff has gone into planning this,” Szakacsy says. “It’s been an insane journey.”
A couple phone calls later, Szakacsy is content the caravan of his ASU football teammates is headed in the right direction. He takes a deep breath, sets his phone down and focuses on the road ahead.
Szakacsy and 14 other Sun Devil players are making a nearly two-hour drive to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation to conduct a youth football camp in connection with the local Boys and Girls Club. But this scorching Saturday afternoon in July is about more than football.
A lasting encounter
Even after an engaging, inspired conversation, Robert Howard said he didn’t expect to hear from the long-haired football player he met outside the Memorial Union.
Five months later, Howard knows it’s what he should have expected all along.
Howard, a 37-year-old double major in accounting and American Indian Studies at ASU, is a San Carlos native who commutes to Tempe three times a week for school, an effort he balances between raising a family and working on the tribal council.
During a break between classes one day last semester, Howard was listening to an evangelist preacher shout about his beliefs outside the MU. Szakacsy, a religious studies student always aiming to soak up the world around him, was there too.
The two met, and Howard shared with Szakacsy some of the troubles facing people on the reservation.
Szakacsy texted Howard later in the afternoon. I want to learn more, Szakacsy said.
A couple days later the two met on campus and headed east to San Carlos to begin what would become a life-changing journey for the quarterback.
Szakacsy was introduced to Chairman Wendsler Nosie, known to those on the reservation as Chief.
“We’ve talked to many others before, but when I met Samson, he listened,” Nosie said. “The thing about Samson is, he didn’t come in here telling us [what we should do] or instructing us or any of those things. He said chairman, ‘Tell me.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Nosie told Szakacsy about the challenges facing one of the nation’s poorest Native American communities, where about 60 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.
The California native learned about the reservation’s fear over mining operations in nearby areas that, depending on potential legislation in the Senate, could soon encroach on the reservation’s 1.8-million acre grounds.
Such operations, Noise said, could lead to contamination of the water in San Carlos, water that Szakacsy calls the “most pure and clear” he’s ever tasted.
Inspired, touched and determined to help, Szakacsy continued to make trips back to the reservation, often as a guest in Nosie’s home. He marched in a parade celebrating Apache heritage and visited and spoke to families in the community. Most of all, he listened.
“He’s a part of this, and people here know him now,” Howard said.
A helping hand
As Szakacsy and his teammates pull into the parking lot at San Carlos High School at about 10 a.m., the field is already full of eager camp participants anxiously awaiting their opportunity to meet ASU football players who, until now, they’ve only seen on TV.
Some of them, Howard says, have been at the field since 8 a.m.
Szakacsy dreamed up the concept of a football camp during one of his early visits to the reservation, aware the sport could be a vehicle to portray a larger message.
When the quarterback brought his idea back to his teammates in Tempe, he was humbled by their response.
“First off, Samson’s a great guy, everybody on the team loves him, so if it’s something for him everyone’s willing to do it,” junior wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad said. “Once you learn more about it and to present an opportunity for these kids, it just made it more meaningful.”
After leading the same stretches the Sun Devils do in their own practices, Szakacsy and his teammates split 123 campers — more than twice the number Szakacsy said he originally expected — into stations that covered techniques from tossing spirals to learning the proper offensive lineman stance.
The man with the whistle directing traffic was Steven Threet, who visited the reservation with Szakacsy shortly after the latter’s original trip to San Carlos. Threet has helped Szakacsy with planning for the camp ever since.
“We were learning just as much as the kids were,” said Threet, who appeared to be having as much fun as any camper, whether it was throwing deep passes or helping a youngster with a shorter attention span identify the type of bug he’d found on the ground. “Anything I can do to help, I’m right there with [Szakacsy]. We want to connect and let them know people outside the reservation are thinking about them.”
The campers couldn’t get enough of the action. Just ask junior offensive lineman Aderious Simmons, who was climbed like a jungle gym by kids who hoped the players would never leave.
Before they did leave, Szakacsy gave heartfelt thanks to his teammates.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for them,” he said.
Then his attention was turned to the children from a community that has welcomed his sincere involvement with open arms.
“Any dreams that you have, you can make those real,” Szakacsy told the campers. “There’s no difference between us. We all bleed red.”
As the camp wrapped up, Nosie’s eyes welled with tears as he reflected on a special day for his community, one he and Szakacsy hope will be have a lasting effect.
“I think we’ve learned something, and it’s going to go along with what we all bring to the table,” Nosie said. “Samson’s listening. And by listening he’s found how he can make a difference.”
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